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What Can Federal IT Professionals Learn from ‘Silicon Valley?’

HBO’s hit show could offer tips for agency leaders on innovation and recruiting.

Should federal IT leaders make Erlich Bachman, the software designer from HBO’s Silicon Valley, a federal IT thought leader?

The show, which depicts a California startup trying to capitalize on a data compression algorithm, has garnered a cult following over the last three seasons. Season four premieres April 23.

Rarely are the days — and nights — of the IT community the subject of small screen comedies, but David Egts, chief technologist for the public sector at Red Hat, says federal IT leaders can learn from the characters on the show.

He points to two lessons.

First, startups like Richard Hendricks’ fictional Pied Piper are out to make a fortune and have only a handful of friends and coworkers depending on their success. But the federal government risks endangering public safety, losing taxpayer dollars or — worst of all — squandering the public’s trust in light of its mishaps.

Federal IT leaders “should be looking at ways of making failure less expensive,” Egts says. That, in turn, could lead to greater innovation and problem solving.

In January, the federal CIO council released its annual “State of Federal Information Technology Report” and suggested agencies “adopt the ‘fail fast’ attitude of modern IT practices to the policy development and oversight process.”

Second, one of the lead characters of Silicon Valley is a Stanford dropout, and other characters feature a pedigree from some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.

While federal IT leaders may not have the recruiting power (or budgets) to land such highly sought-after employees, Egts says organizations can leverage the same talent by “harnessing the innovation of open source by partnering with companies that support commercial open source.” That could be particularly important when trying to improve cybersecurity.

As a starting point, Egts notes that several in the tech industry have moved from California to Washington D.C. to work for government shops and solve ambitious problems in the hopes of making the country better.

For example, longtime Google search expert Matt Cutts joined the Defense Digital Service at the Pentagon, part of the U.S Digital Service, for what was supposed to be a temporary stint of three months. Three months turned into six months after he saw the impact USDS could have, and on Dec. 31, 2016, Cutts resigned from Google. He is now the director of engineering for the USDS

John P. Johnson/HBO
Mar 02 2017

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